Before I begin, a housekeeping note: I have added a new feature to my right-hand sidebar. In addition to links to my current reading, in print and online, and some of the blogs I frequent, I’ve added an “on the carrots ipod” category. There, I will post two tracks at a time that merit the status of current favorites. I hope you enjoy.
A few years ago, I was researching nineteenth-century dolls when I happened upon a delightfully disturbing piece of information in Leslie Hope Cornford’s London Pride and London Shame (1910). Cornford writes of the Happy Evenings Society, a charitable organization that arranged wholesome fun for the street urchins who so conveniently swept chimneys and such. The little girls attending these evenings, I learned, were often herded into a classroom where they were allowed, for a brief moment, to hold the luxurious fashion dolls enjoyed by their less-grubby, aristocratic counterparts. The dolls were then taken away.
Oh, dear. Horrible. And SO PERFECT for my dolls article.
One of my mentors dubs this the “weird Victorian anecdote” strategy. Some might argue that this practice is a cheap trick that, while possibly engaging a reader’s attention, often misrepresents the Victorians as a ragtag bunch of oddballs covering the curvaceous legs of pianos and sloshing out to sea in bathing machines. I am relatively certain, of course, that the Happy Evenings Society did in fact taunt poor children with expensive toys, although I suspect they did not see it that way. And I know that by including the anecdote my article, I’m encouraging my readers to feel that delicious moment of defamiliarization. Those crazy nineteenth-century people and their crazy nineteenth-century ideas!
Despite these risks, I continue to use the weird Victorian anecdote. And I’m in good company. Some of the scholars I respect the most, including aforementioned mentor, often begin their work with a quirky story. Nineteenth-century England just teems with these often slightly horrifying but always entertaining anecdotes. Maybe it’s a consequence of the booming periodical press or the survival of so much great material to the present day or a growing tendency in the Victorian period to document and categorize and classify. Hello, Darwin!
I have, in fact, been searching for the perfect weird Victorian anecdote to use as an opener to my book. I began my dissertation, the original version of my book, with the slightly unsettling factoid that Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, often sat seaside with a pocket full of safety pins, prepared to help girls pin up their skirts. But after some serious Carroll-related soul-searching, I decided that I don’t believe Carroll to be the creeper most readers would assume. Many accounts that paint him unsavory are out of context. (A lot of grown Victorian men, after all, had now-unfamiliar opinions about children.) And even if I introduce the safety pins only to explain them away — which is really impossible — they would haunt the rest of the book. A whispery, phantom Victorian anecdote.
So the search continued, and it felt very high stakes. This is my first book, and ideally my opening anecdote will both merit the “zany Victorians” response and communicate in a paragraph or two the crux of my project. I’ve been researching this topic for some time, of course, and I’ve located many an oddball Victorian, but I discuss most of the really juicy stories in later chapters. Not wanting to steal my own thunder, I was looking for something new.
While searching for my opener, I was also reading Sally Shuttleworth’s impressive new book, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1840-1900 (Oxford 2010). I’ve found Shuttleworth’s work invaluable in thinking through those sections of my own work that discuss the child study movement of the late nineteenth century. She’s exhaustive and smart, weaving together literature and science in a way that the writer in me envies.
But oh, goodness. Despite being important and new, Shuttleworth’s book is FULL of weird Victorian anecdotes. Some are quirky and fun and only mildly disturbing. Boy savants, visiting royal courts to exhibit their superior calculating skills. The hyper-vigilant baby diaries that heralded a new science of child observation and surveillance. Others are of the decidedly morbid variety. Insane babies. Murderous elementary schoolers. I’m particularly taken with Shuttleworth’s chapter on baby experiments — mostly harmless practices, like tickling the cheeks of sleeping infants or placing a drop of something sweet on a baby’s tongue. But then there are those who decided to manipulate infants’ fingers around tree limbs to demonstrate that the infant grip approximated the monkey’s. With pictures! I believe these tree limbs were quite close to well-padded solid ground, but I make no promises.
Oh, how I covet Shuttleworth’s impressive cache weird Victorian anecdotes. They are not of my finding, and none serve the exact purpose they would need to in my manuscript. I’ve since found an appropriate opening vignette, something compelling if not as, well, horrifying as baby experiments.
I will not disclose it here. You will have to wait for its publication.